“Seven Respectable Sins” Sermon Series Continues

Date: March 15, 2015

Title: “Hoarding, Holding, and Hanging On”

Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

             Here it is, the fourth Sunday of Lent already, and the fourth in our sermon series on the “Seven Respectable Sins”. Each week we have taken one of the famous “Seven Deadly Sins”, and explored the ways we have domesticated it. We have considered the ways we have become so comfortable with these sins, that we have made them, in essence, “respectable.” In weeks past, we’ve seen how Envy has become the common practice of comparing ourselves to others, and Lust has come to mean the way we objectify people, while Gluttony finds its expression today in the rampant consumerism of our culture.

Today, we consider Greed – and the ways we hoard, hold, and hang onto the things, the experiences, and even the people in our lives. In 1987 the film “Wall Street” created a visual and dramatic representation of this historically deadly sin. The main character in the movie was Gordon Gekko, a ruthless corporate raider. At one point, Gekko gives a speech you may remember, to a roomful of stockholders. He says:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed – in all its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge – has marked the upward surge of humanity. And greed – mark my words – will not only save this company, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

             Obviously Gordon Gekko was a fictional character, but he has far too many real-life followers. So what exactly is greed? According to Wikipedia… Greed – also known as avarice, cupidity, or covetousness – is the inordinate desire to possess wealth, goods or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one’s self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort. Greed is an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs.

             Way back in the days of the French Renaissance, the philosopher Montaigne said “It’s not want, but rather abundance, that creates greed.” Think about it for a moment and perhaps you will agree. People trapped in a refugee camp, or starving in a drought-stricken nation – people who have next to nothing – are going to want what they truly need. While those of us who live in the midst of plenty, we may be tempted to want it all.

And while that may not be an attractive, or even a comfortable way to live, the real problem with greed is not what it spurs us to accumulate. The real problem with greed is what it keeps us from receiving. Greed blocks relationship. Greed limits love. And greed destroys community.

There was a woman in another church I served many years ago, who outwardly seemed very giving, very kind, very humble. She was always the first to arrive at church on a Sunday morning, and would spend hours in the kitchen preparing for coffee hour, or potluck lunch, or whatever hospitality was called for on any given day. But she never wanted anyone to come to her house.

As she aged, this woman sometimes had difficulty walking. But rather than accept any of the numerous offers of a ride, she would call a taxi to pick her up and to take her home. If she became ill or felt a little down, she would invent an out of town trip to explain her absence so that nobody would check on her. She never wanted anyone to come to her house – not her friends, not her pastor, not her neighbors, not even her son.

I thought it was a little strange, but everyone said that’s just the way she is…so then I thought no more about it. Until the Sunday she didn’t show up and nobody had seen her or heard from her in a couple of days. The time had come for somebody to go to her house.

So I went, with a little bit of trembling. I found the back door open and walked into another world. Clearly this woman had been collecting things for years, without ever letting anything go. In the kitchen every available space was covered with empty jars and plastic food containers, stacked on counters and even lining the floor. From the kitchen one had to walk carefully, following the two foot path carved out between floor to ceiling stacks of old newspapers, magazines and books. It was incredible to me that anyone could live in that space.

Eventually I made my way to the bathroom, where I found this woman lying in the tub, where she had fallen two days earlier and have been unable to rise. I called the paramedics, who came quickly and carried her out the door (they couldn’t even get a stretcher into the house because of all the stuff). And all the woman could say to me was “You shouldn’t have come.”

She was angry with me because I had witnessed the disconnection of her life. She would rather have died alone in that tub than to have allowed anyone in to see her stuff.

Now this woman undoubtedly suffered from a mental health disorder which caused her to hoard, hold and hang onto all those things. But if we are honest, we will admit that all of us can go there from time to time. Perhaps to that extent – but we all hoard, hold and hang on well beyond our needs. It may not be used jars, empty plastic food containers, or even newspapers and magazines, but think about it. What is it that blocks relationship, or limits love, or destroys community in your life? Is it “stuff” you accumulate which makes it difficult to downsize, and impossible to move? Is it old wound you carry around which leave you fearful of allowing others into your house – your heart? Is it taking on too much work, accepting too many tasks, and hanging onto some sense of self-importance which only creates exhaustion and zaps you of energy for others?

The problem may not be so much in what we hoard, hold, or hang onto, as it is in what we lose. When Jesus tells his disciples this morning “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it…”, he is asking us all to think about what we hang onto and what we lose. Karoline Lewis puts it this way:

Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. It is an invitation to imagine that your self needs the other – desperately, intimately. Because this is what to be human is all about. It is about intimacy, belonging, relationship, and attention. We can’t be ourselves on our own. When we try to do that, it is a self-absorbed existence. What Jesus is asking us to deny are the impulses that demand reliance on ourselves alone.

             All this talk about suffering and denial and the cross – what a downer! It must be Lent. When Jesus tells us “If any way to become my followers, let them deny themselves…”, the Greek word translated here as “deny” is the same one used to describe what Peter does after Jesus has been arrested and is on his way to crucifixion. These are the only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament – Peter denying Jesus and Jesus calling us to deny ourselves. This seems to suggest that to deny yourself is to recognize you don’t really know yourself all that well, and that you have no choice but to trust that God knows you better than that. God knows you the best.

To deny yourself is to trust God enough to stop hoarding, holding or hanging onto your own agenda, or your own fear, your own anxiety, or your own limitations. Sharon Blezard suggests:

The way of the cross is not about self-flagellation, destructive behaviors, or irresponsible actions. It’s not even about pie-in-the-sky eschatology, or the threat of being left behind. Following Jesus and denying yourself is about something much more demanding. It is about being “all in”, about giving a 100% commitment to use your gifts, skills, talents and resources to share the Gospel and live into God’s reign right now.

            Following Jesus with that kind of “all in” discipleship, we find that we can stop hoarding, holding and hanging on. We can choose to lose the old life, which wasn’t really working that well anyway. We can choose to lose it so that we are free to embrace the new life – the God life of love and relationship and community, which we are being offered in this very moment.

There is an old story you may have heard, which I think bears repeating today. It seems a small plane with five passengers on it had an engine on fire and was going to crash. The pilot came out of the cockpit with a parachute pack strapped on his back and told the passengers: “Folks, there is bad news, and there is good news. The bad news is that the plane’s going down, and there’s nothing more I can do. The good news is that there are several parachute packs by the wall back there. The bad news is that there are four of them, and five of you. But, good luck. Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope you have a good evening, wherever your final destination may take you.”  With that, he gave the thumbs-up sign and jumped out the door of the plane.

A woman immediately leaped up from her seat, saying, “I’m one of the most prominent brain surgeons in the world. My patients depend on me.” She grabbed a pack, strapped it on her back, and jumped out of the plane.

A man stood up next and said, “I am a partner in a large law firm, and the practice would fall to pieces without me.” He grabbed a pack, strapped it on his back, and jumped.

Another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world. My IQ is so high I won’t even tell you what it is. But surely you understand I must save myself.” With that, he picked up a bundle and jumped.

That left only two people on the plane – a middle-aged pastor and a teenage boy. “Son,” said the pastor, “You take the last parachute. You’re young; you have your whole life ahead of you. God bless you, and safe landing.” The teenager just grinned at the pastor and said, “Thanks, man – but there are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my knapsack.”

Friends, the truth is we are all in midair, clinging to something. The question is – are we making the right choice? What can we give in exchange for our lives? Only our love… which is ultimately what will save us in the end! Thanks be to God. Amen.

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